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April 16, 2015

Whitehall’s open data pledge called into question

Where is the missing Cabinet Office spend data?

By Ellie Burns

The General Election is fast approaching and many questions are being fired at the candidates for varying government offices. One question unlikely to be answered is, where is the missing Cabinet Office spend data?

Is there some sort of issue with publically updating this information? If there is, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Ministry of Defence (MoD) and HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) certainly are not having the same problems, as they have managed to provide spend data up to at least December of last year.

This data spend details how public money is being spent on a monthly basis, with all departments required to detail spend on a monthly or quarterly basis. The only problem is, the Cabinet Office has not updated its spend data since July 2014.

What further compounds this issue, is that the Cabinet Office is the one government department championing open data policy commitments, making promises to ensure transparency by publishing datasets through the service.

The mystery deepens ever further with Government Computing reporting that it is not only spend data being held back from public view, but also information on meetings held by senior Cabinet Officials.

Reluctant to start government conspiracy theories, Government Computing’s Neil Merret reached out to a Cabinet Office spokesperson for comment, where the clear shouldering of blame was placed on the previous government.

Asked about the spending information and a possible timeline for publication, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told Merret that they were unable to comment on "why the previous government didn’t publish the data" due to the pre-election period – also known as ‘purdah’ – being in place.

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One can only speculate how Mike Bracken, the UK’s first chief data officer, will resolve this issue – or indeed give a clear explanation as to why this data has been withheld from the public.

Bracken has previously admitted, to his credit, about the lack of central coordination on moving forward with transparency plans, stating in the GDS blog that his CDO responsibilities will revolve around transforming management with the establishment of standards and principles, as well as working to open up existing government data wherever possible.

One would advise the Cabinet Office to act in haste with this ‘transparency’.

UK data regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), said that with the introduction of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in 2005, departments are now required to publish information proactively, as well as responding to requests on data they hold.

The ICO stated that enforcement notices can be issued if an authority fails to adopt the approved publication scheme or publish in accordance with the commitments made.

Jessica Figueras, research director at Kable told Merret; "The Cabinet Office is responsible for the government’s open data strategy, and has put great effort into persuading other departments to publish their data openly. So it’s surprising to see it lagging so badly behind, when it should be leading by example.

"I cannot see any sensible reason why the data could not have been published – either the Cabinet Office has had issues with its accounting systems, or the data contains inconvenient information that it would prefer not to make public. Either way, the omission raises questions over the strength of Whitehall’s commitment to open data."

‘Transparency’, ‘open data’, ‘openness’ – all data promises made by Whitehall. This mystery of the missing data spend is testament to the fact that these data promises remain unfulfilled.

While we can continue to speculate on a myriad of reasons for the missing data, there remains only two questions for the Cabinet Office to answer – Where is the missing data? What are you spending taxpayers money on?

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